Education in Detroit: “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste”

Jan 1, 2016 by

Tom Watkins –

The Spirit of Detroit Is Renewable– It Begins With Our Children 

As the New Year begins, I am reminded of the economic law that will kick in when it comes to Detroit Public Schools (DPS).  The iron-clad rule of economics: “Stein’s Law,” named after Herb Stein, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Nixon era, which reads: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

The State has a moral and constitutional responsibility to fix what it is partially responsible for breaking.  The State of Michigan took control of DPS, placing an “emergency manager” in charge in 1999, which has proved to be an utter failure.  DPS’ financial woes have neither been fixed nor provided even a minimal education to the majority of Detroit students.  It is hard to imagine that things could be worse than they were when Governor Engler took control of DPS in 1999, but they are.

The public schools in Detroit have been hollowed out over the years. Today, there are not enough fingers on two hands to point to the various culprits responsible for the mess that exists.  This is not to say that there are not exceptional teachers, principals, classrooms and schools; there are many.  Yet, for far too many of our children, public education (e.g. traditional, charter and EAA schools) exists as small islands of excellence surrounded by a sea of despair.

Know this: A child without a decent education today becomes an adult without much of a future tomorrow.  Our failure to educate the children of Detroit to even minimal standards, let alone world class standards, dooms them to a mediocre life at best and a collective disaster for us all at worst.


The problems with public education in Detroit are immense and will require real change to produce the results our children need and deserve.  Detroit’s schools – Public, Charter and EAA – have been found to be among those with the worst test scores and graduation rates in the nation.

For far too many Detroit students, the educational collapse has been going on for decades.  DPS enrollment has dropped by nearly 100,000 students in the past decade, which greatly contributes to the accumulation of more than $500 million in operating debt.  That figure, combined with the borrowing of funds for buildings, puts the district at risk of fiscal collapse.  Such a collapse would greatly affect schools and local units of government as the state is constitutionally responsible to cover many debts and liabilities.  The figure could be in the billions of dollars.

If you don’t care about what this means to these children, you’d better, even if for your own self-interest.  Doomed without the inability to read, write, calculate or navigate life, these very children will be coming to your place of business someday – as potential customers, employees or, perhaps, with nefarious thoughts in mind.  Let me assure you that these children simply do not “disappear”.

Leadership and Supervision?

Article VIII, Section 3 of Michigan’s Constitution establishes the following responsibility:

“The State Board of Education has leadership and general supervision over all public (elementary and secondary) education…and shall advise the Legislature as to the financial requirements and connections therewith.”

Exactly where is the “leadership and supervision”?

Unless and until the governor and legislature fix the historical messes surrounding the dysfunctional public educational system in Detroit, there are not enough resources in the entire treasury to fix what ails Detroit’s schools.

Detroit will never complete its comeback without quality schools.


DPS has reached a tipping point which the Governor and Legislature must address in early 2016.  Every day of inaction serves only to delay learning.  Proposed legislation, backed by Governor Snyder, builds upon recommendations from a community coalition of talented Detroiters led by CEO’s Tonya Allen (The Skillman Foundation) and John Rakolta (Walbridge).

Their goal is to address the financial crisis while offering Detroit parents access to quality schools, regardless of the type of public school they want their children to attend.

TLC or Power, Control, Ideology, Politics and Adults?

The legislative package is said to include the creation of a new, traditional public school district – a Detroit Community School District – to teach students, with the current Detroit Public Schools district existing only to address the debt.  All students, employees, contracts, employee benefits, and assets would move to the new district, to be governed by a seven-member board initially appointed by the Governor and the Detroit mayor, eventually switching to elected members.  An all-elected board would be in place by 2021.

In addition:

  • The creation of a Detroit Education Commission (appointed by the mayor and governor) which would then engage the community and hire a chief education officer.
  • Driving academic achievement and increasing access to quality schools would require the Chief Education Officer to work with the community, hold low-performing schools accountable, and reward and increase the number of high-performing schools.
  • Calling for the Chief Education Officer to operate a common enrollment system with common forms, enrollment periods and notification dates to help parents identify and evaluate their schools’ options and choose schools that best fit their children’s needs.
  • Require partnering with the city’s current Financial Review Commission to oversee finances until the debt is repaid in full.

Clearly, there is no consensus on this plan in the streets of Detroit, under the State Capitol Dome, among teacher union leadership or in the Mayor’s office. One needs to be forged.  It is past time for the focus to switch from power, control, ideology, politics and adults to TLC: Teaching, Learning and Children.

Detroit is rising from the ashes of bankruptcy and the excitement, energy and investment is as noticeable as it is palpable: There are old refurbished buildings, new clubs, businesses, bars and eating establishments popping up all over the city.  However, where are the deep-pocketed investors willing to invest in what will truly help to sustain Detroit’s and Michigan’s comeback: Quality education?


The children of Detroit deserve a quality education, and it is our collective responsibility to make it happen.

The United Negro College Fund’s motto, “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” still resonates today even as the debate about Detroit’s public school education rages on. Meanwhile, far too many young minds are being wasted.

As Stein’s law reminds us: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Tom Watkins served as Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools, 2001-05. Read his 2004 report foreshadowing much of which is playing out in schools today: Structural Funding Issues Facing Michigan Schools in the 21st century.

Source: Education in Detroit: “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste”

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